John Uustal, Michael Hersh and Catherine Darlson of Kelley/Uustal in Fort Lauderdale worked out a $27 million settlement with international kitchenware distributorLifetime Brands Inc. over a faulty pressure cooker that exploded and injured 3-year-old Samantha Gonzalez in Broward.
Gonzalez’s grandmother, Caridad Fernandez Reinaldo, was bathing her in the kitchen sink on Sept. 14, 2015, while chicken soup simmered on a nearby stove top, inside a Vasconia 8-quart pressure cooker. But the appliance suddenly malfunctioned, according to the complaint, spraying hot liquid in its wake.
Reinaldo tried to move the potoff the stove top but it buckled under pressure at the same moment, exploding and scalding Gonzalez.
“It’s every parent’s nightmare,” Uustal said.
Gonzalez, now 5, suffered second- and third-degree burns covering most of her body,and had to have aleg, a hand andall herfingers amputated. Herparents, Luciel Fernandez and Tina Gonzalez, sued Lifetime Brands in 2016,claiming that if they weren’t sold a faulty product,the accident never would have happened.
Lifetime Brands denied the allegations and argued that Reinaldo misused the pressure cooker. Defense counselMichael J. McCauslandof Conroy Simberg in Hollywood did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.
The biggest obstacle for Uustal and his team was proving thatthe infant’sinjuries weren’tdue to her grandmother’s actions, and that the potwas faulty and opened under pressure.Consumer Product Safety Commission, police, fire marshals and investigators concluded that Reinaldo had dropped it on the baby.
“And she did drop it, but only because it exploded open,” Uustal said. “It was very difficult to prove what happened.”
Reinaldo struggled to explain what happened, while expertson both sides tested the pressure cooker and cameto the same conclusion: it wasn’t defective. But something didn’t smell rightto Uustal’s team.
“We knew it opened under pressure because there was evidence all over the ceiling and walls, and there was water on the floor,” Uustal said. “The question was ‘how’ and ‘why’ it opened under pressure, not ‘could’ it.”
A neighbor also recalled hearing a loud noise and someone shouting, ‘It exploded! It exploded!’ according to Uustal, whoultimately resorted toconducting his own experiments.
“It got dangerous,” Uustal said. “In one of the tests, one of the pressure cookers flew off the pot and almost hit someone, so we had to stop that form of testing.”
Eventually, when Uustal and his teamstruggled to findnewVasconia pressure cookers,they bought some older models on eBay.And then, a lightbulb moment.
“They started behaving differently,” Uustal said.
According to Uustal, the older pressure cooker had adefective lid-locking system and was unsafe on stoveswith temperatureabove 2,000 watts. Experts had been testing the wrong model.
“We definitely got a little lucky here, but I’m also proud of the fact that we just wouldn’t give up after being told by our experts that there was no case,” Uustal said. “In the end it was so clear that their defense expert admitted it.”
Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal approved the settlement on Nov. 6, which will allow Gonzalez to get state-of-the-artprosthetics.
“She’s a beautiful, happy little girl,” Uustal said. “Even without prosthetics she gets where she wants to go and does what she wants to do. But she deserves the best prosthetic, and just the thought that she can have them for the rest of her life is a relief.”
Uustal’s team have filed a report with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which it hopes will lead to arecall.